(New York, NY) — Nearly a year into military rule plagued by unlawful killings and mass detentions of protestors, Myanmar writers and artists remain determined to continue their creative work and use their voices to challenge the regime. Based on a situational review of over 100 of Myanmar’s leading writers and artists, complemented by in-depth interviews with more than 20 individuals, PEN America’s new report Stolen Freedoms: Creative Expression, Historic Resistance, and the Myanmar Coup details the devastation to the creative sector as well as the courage and determination of Myanmar’s literary and creative community, and offers recommendations to assist threatened artists and bolster creative expression in Myanmar. 

“We artists know what the military can do. We know they’re not kind enough to spare us, and that when they’ve finished elsewhere they’ll turn their attention to us,” said a visual artist imprisoned under the previous military junta who is quoted in the report.

Since the February 1, 2021 coup in which the military seized power, the toll on artists has been devastating. Preliminary data analyzed in the report indicates that since the 2021 coup at least:

  • Fifty-nine creative artists, including poets, literary writers, visual artists, dramatists, and singers/songwriters, have been victims of serious human rights violations; 
  • Forty-five creative artists have been detained. More than half remain in detention and at least four have been convicted and sentenced to imprisonment on a range of baseless charges; and
  • Five poets have been killed, including Khet Thi, who was taken from his home and seemingly tortured to death in custody. 

In addition to detention and acts of violence, new “amendments” to the penal code have expanded the range of speech that is criminalized, and have been repeatedly used to bring charges against creative artists. In addition, lengthy and broad-based internet shutdowns, as well as heightened surveillance, have negatively impacted artists’ ability to share their words and creative work. Many individuals are experiencing significant safety concerns, as well as trauma and the loss of their livelihoods, but many—buoyed by a long history of creative resistance in Myanmar—are also responding to these considerable challenges and restrictions with powerful art and a vibrant, creative show of resistance to military rule.

“As horrifying as the situation for human rights and free expression in Myanmar is today, the courage and determination of the creative community is also a powerful demonstration of the importance of literature, art, and creativity as a bulwark against repression,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America’s director of free expression at risk programs. “These artists repeatedly risk prison and death for something as simple as penning a poem or singing a song. Without their courage, the military’s stranglehold on artistic expression would be complete. This report is a testament to the incredible lengths the creative community has gone to—and in many cases, been forced into—to make their voices heard in response to the military coup. Six years after PEN America assessed the challenges and hopes for free expression in Myanmar after its first democratic election, it is sobering to document the constricted landscape the country’s writers and artists now face. It is essential that the international community continue to protect and lift up the voices of those continuing Myanmar’s rich legacy of artistic resistance and offering a vision of a brighter future.”

The report calls on the Myanmar military to immediately cease the killing, harassment, arbitrary detention, and torture of creative artists, protestors, activists, and dissidents and unconditionally release all writers and creative artists held in prison for exercising their right to freedom of expression, including, but not limited to, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, Than Myint Aung, Maung Thar Cho, Htin Lin Oo, Mya Aye, and Wai Moe Naing. It also makes the following recommendations:

  • The international community must provide refuge for Myanmar’s creative community, through the efficient and effective provision of visas and/or protected status, and through support for intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration.
  • The international creative community should prioritize support for Myanmar’s creative community and its art by showcasing the work of Myanmar creative artists internationally, engaging across borders with Myanmar creative peers, and offering them security and opportunities for exposure and collaboration via exchanges and residencies.
  • The United States Congress should pass the BURMA Act, which would impose sanctions for human rights abuses and provide humanitarian assistance to dissidents and victims of the military, and the Protect Democracy in Burma Act, which would condemn the coup and instruct the Secretary of State to submit a report to Congress on United States efforts to rally the international community against the military regime.

The scope of recommendations can be found in the full report. PEN America experts are available for interviews.

The report includes interviews with artists grappling with how to continue their work under threat. One artist who was interviewed recalled their former dream of getting government funding for an arts association, concluding that “if we ask for space now, [the military] will just give us a bullet and a three-by-six foot space” to be buried in.

This is PEN America’s second report on free and creative expression in Myanmar. The first, Unfinished Freedom: A Blueprint for the Future of Free Expression in Myanmar, was published six years ago, in the wake of the historic parliamentary election landslide that brought Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) to power. Under the NLD government, hoped-for improvements in the environment for free expression did not materialize, and legal reforms proved difficult to enact. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, Myanmar was one of the most egregious jailers of writers even before the coup, with eight writers held in prison during 2020. The military’s unlawful seizure of power on February 1 has dramatically worsened the situation for writers and other dissident voices—since seizing power, military officials have arrested dozens of writers and artists while implementing other draconian measures to silence dissidents and free speech, including indiscriminate violence against creative artists. PEN America has also documented digital repression under the junta.